BEFORE the nation is shoehorned into a discussion of the ABS-CBN Corp. case as a press freedom issue or political controversy, let’s remind everyone that we are looking here at two separate questions and arguments.
First, there is the fact that the ABS-CBN broadcast network faces on March 30 this year the expiration of its franchise to operate its vast broadcasting network throughout the country. ABS-CBN has petitioned Congress for the official renewal of its franchise. Legislative bills have been filed for the franchise renewal, but at this point, with the expiration date only a month away, no new franchise has been granted by the legislature. The debates and discussions have not even happened yet.
Second, Solicitor General Jose Calida has filed with the Supreme Court a quo warranto petition seeking to revoke the franchise of ABS-CBN and preclude its renewal.
Ordinarily, these should be questions that the legislature and the Supreme Court can resolve according to their rules and in their own good time, after due argumentation by lawyers and advocates.
But such are the many issues involved in this case that it is likely for the nation’s political life and top leaders to be thrust into the process.
The first question is simple enough to untangle. The Congress, in this case the current 18th Congress, has an obligation to give due course to the network’s application for franchise renewal. Bills in this regard have been filed or will be filed in Congress. The Senate and the House of Representatives must forthwith deliberate on the legislative proposal, and hear and study relevant testimony or argument.
There will predictably be criticisms of ABS-CBN that will seek to dissuade Congress from granting a franchise renewal.
The other question belongs to another jurisdiction, that of the Supreme Court.
In his petition before the high court, Calida contended: “The legislative franchises of ABS-CBN Corp. and its subsidiary ABS-CBN Convergence Inc. must be revoked. A franchise is a special privilege [given] by the State, and should be restricted only to entities, which faithfully adhere to our Constitution and laws.
He presented a pile of documents to show that ABS-CBN sold Philippine Depositary Receipts to non-Filipino entities, who are strictly prohibited from owning stocks in media companies in the country.
He alleged that ABS-CBN violated the terms of its franchise and, therefore, should be barred from renewing it.
Because ABS-CBN majority owners, the Lopez family, and President Rodrigo Duterte have been at odds in the past for political reasons, it has been speculated that the President is exerting his powers to persuade Congress to stall the franchise renewal, and that he is the principal reason why the Solicitor General filed the quo warranto petition.
The Palace, however, through its spokesman Salvador Panelo, is disclaiming involvement at both ends.
“It’s Congress that has the authority to grant or renew franchises, not the President. As is his practice, he does not interfere with a function of Congress,” Panelo said.
It won‘t stop there. The media and press organizations have weighed in with their view that the prospective shutdown of the ABS-CBN television network is politically motivated.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, which normally shies away from partisan quarrels, has declared: “ABS-CBN is a cornerstone of Philippine democracy and the free press for its independent and critical reportage and massive following in the country and abroad. These moves politically harass and threaten a pillar of the media industry.”
Eleven bills seeking to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise are pending at the committee level in Congress. The panel concerned has yet to schedule a hearing.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court asked the ABS-CBN companies to file their comments on the quo warranto petition.
The going gets tough and litigious from here.